The Washington Post has reported that First Lady Michelle Obama will celebrate her 50th birthday on 18 January with a food-light dance party at the White House. The save the date e-mail advised guests to wear comfortable shoes, practice their dance moves and to dine before arriving. The instructions have left some etiquette experts perplexed.
Colin Cowie, Oprah Winfrey’s go-to entertainment guru, worded his reaction gracefully. ‘To ask people to “eat before you come” is not the way I would have done it,’ Cowie said. ‘I always think of the food. When it comes to making people feel welcome we give them great music, a well-stocked bar, and excellent food — and you do it abundantly.’
Through the Let’s Move! organisation, Mrs Obama is often seen working out, and promoting healthy eating with the aim of curbing childhood obesity in the US. Perhaps if food was served in abundance at her 50th birthday bash, the guests would be in discomfort when expected to ‘let loose’ on the dance floor.
Back in my undergraduate days in Scotland, we often attended ceilidhs and balls where food was never served. There was a bar and sometimes ice cream, but guests were expected to arrive with full stomachs, ready to carve up the dance floor.
I will be honest, I have never been to a party where guests were specifically asked to eat before attending. Parties for me have always been surrounded with food. Growing up, it was considered shameful to appear parsimonious. Food fit for seven would have been served to a table of four. It’s a bit extravagant, but these customs were observed.
I cannot help but be partial on this issue. I absolutely adore Mrs Obama. I don’t believe she has put one elegant foot wrong in her role as First Lady of the US. Whether Mrs Obama’s “eat before you come” will become a trend for soirées remains to be seen. What she has done correctly is to inform her guests beforehand so that people are not caught unawares. Imagine if she hadn’t—guests giving each other awkward looks, wondering when the butler will announce dinner.
I have not seen the save the date e-mail with the “eat before you come” directive. In any case, I doubt Mrs Obama would have put it so indelicately. From what I gather, hors d’œuvres and sweets would be served at the dance party. And that’s precisely what this is—a dance (with no dinner) party.
My advice to readers is to put in the invitation what will be served instead of what guests should do. If instructions to guests cannot be omitted, it’s better to enclose these in a little card separate from the actual invitation.
Etiquette is dynamic and hierarchical. People of a certain social standing can forgo some of the conventions. That’s how social groups know if others are “one of them”. They have earned or have been born into the privilege; the same way a wealthy person has “eccentricities” but never “crazies”. I’ll leave you this to consider: the only time it is acceptable to sip champagne from a paper cup is when you are sailing on your own yacht.